Whatever happened to encyclopedias?

Encyclopedias passed through my thoughts randomly one day, the same way my grocery list does (oh no! I’m out of eggs!). It got me suddenly thinking ‘whatever happened to encyclopedias?’

There was a time when I was young (mind you, I am not very old) that the pride of one’s home is owning a complete set of these gargantuan hardbound books. A home library, or even a bookshelf, is instantly upgraded or is considered “better” when you have these 26 volumes – represented by A to Z.

When I was a little girl, when a house has encyclopedias, I immediately think that the people living there are smarter. That is why I begged my parents to buy me a set. Of course, like many other things in the world, we couldn’t afford it.

I remembered going to my aunt’s house on some weekends to do my assignments. I marvelled at the volumes in its glass case. It is separated from other paperbacks and textbooks (well, there were not a lot of books in my aunt’s house to begin with). This was during the time when computers are still uncommon in homes and not everyone has access to the internet.

Having encyclopedias at home is like having an assurance that whenever you need to know or check something, you will be able to do so! Encyclopedias are in the same family as dictionaries and atlases; you only open them when you want to look up facts. No one reads them for fun. They serve the purpose of a colander in my mom’s kitchen. She doesn’t always use it. Sometimes, it sits in the cupboard for months, but it is there if my mom needs to strain something.

Have you ever opened your door for someone offering encyclopedias? Yes, they used to have agents selling these like cars and insurance. They go door-to-door, the same way Jehovah’s Witnesses recruit their members.

Encyclopedias fell into obsolescence due to the advent of the internet. Now, information is readily available and one can easily access them by crunching a few bunches on the computer or mobile phone. For me, nothing beats the joy of cracking open a volume and fingering the glossy pages. Looking for information about plutonium, you will accidentally pass through ‘plastic’ or ‘platypus’. For a curious child like me, that is a welcomed distraction. Just for fun, I tried looking up the online version of encyclopedias, and let me tell you, the experience is not the same.

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